Getting a grant writer position
January 10, 2008 11:11 AM   Subscribe

The non-profit I work for is undergoing economic changes of the painful contraction type. People are worried, layoffs are looming. I've known for some time my position was not secure and have been looking at moving to a vacant grant writer's position that has come available. I think I have the prerequisites. How can I nail this job?

Okay, so more detail. Our old grant writer was doing a stellar job and moved on to work at a local university. My current position is in IT as the computer handyman for the IT administrator. It was the best I could do in a new town as my skills are better suited to working in larger markets.
This place is largely built around government grants and is now getting underfunded. Chaos and nervousness ensues.
Meanwhile, I've been looking at this vacant position thinking I could do it. I've got a literary knack, am good to excellent with communications, can read people and situations well. I think I have the ability to do the work with excellence. Whether I would love the job I don't know but at the moment I am wanting to go and take on the role if I can get it.
I've been offered an opportunity to do one small grant to see how I do. That's great. The reception to my overtures have all been positive so far.
My question is how can I position myself to be more acceptable for this role in terms of typical company dynamics? It's hard to be specific enough to explain the personalities involved here but if people have suggestions on how they have behaved in similar circumstances that would be helpful.
Also, any sources for information about grant writing, how to bone up on it, anything relating to learning to be a grant writer would be great.
Thanks in advance for any help given.
posted by diode to Work & Money (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The Grantsmanship Center has some wonderful publications about grant writing, dirt cheap. Buy them all. You don't say what field your charity is in; TGC are geared toward social services, but are excellent guidelines for any field.

Can't tell where you are, but try calling these people (in Chicago) to see if there is a similar organization near you. Good source of seminars, research tips, etc.

Call the Director of Development or the grant writer at a parallel institution in your area and ask to do an informational meeting with them, just tell them what you told us. Us grantwriters are stuck up but unappreciated sumsabitches and love to let newbies know how fabulous we are.

A word of caution-- grantwriting is a thankless profession, because people who don't do it think it's easy and blame the grant writer when the money doesn't come in. But you sound like you've got the basics-- good with people, strong writing skills, familiarity with the field and the agency.

Good luck!
posted by nax at 11:33 AM on January 10, 2008

Also, send a MeMail to Miko, one of the contributors to this site. She's like the goddess of nfp.
posted by nax at 11:34 AM on January 10, 2008

I am a grant writer, so welcome to the club! I have a feeling that they will give you this job, considering they have been positive so far and also because grant writers and development professionals are in strong demand - especially right now when the economy is bad and there is less money to go around.

This is the kind of job that's really learned on the ground, so I'm not sure there's much I would tell you to do to prepare. If you're a decent writer, grantwriting will come fairly easy to you. Just be sure to follow every detail to the letter. Funders are very picky about this kind of thing.

If you're looking to change/expand careers, this is a really good move for you. Like I said, experienced grant writers are hard to find, so you will always be able to find a job. Also, development staff generally make more than program staff. Even if you find you don't love the job, stick with it for a while. This kind of experience is super valuable to other non-profits and will look great on your resume. Good luck!
posted by jrichards at 11:38 AM on January 10, 2008

It sounds like the person who'd supervise the grant writer (is there a development director?) is open to you moving into that position, which is great. Beyond that, there may be other people in the organization to talk to about your desire to move in that direction. I'm program staff at a nonprofit, so the grantwriter works with me when she wants to write a grant about the programs I lead. So, you might talk to people like that (or the scientists, or whoever's help you'd need to fill in the details in the grant), particularly the people who the development director might ask their opinion or advice. That way, if Dev Director says "hey, I've been thinking of making the IT person the grantwriter," they'd say "oh yeah, s/he talked to me about it! I think they'd be great to work with on grants!"
posted by salvia at 12:19 PM on January 10, 2008

(Oh, and another component of others in the organization saying "I think they'd be great" is if they've found you to be generally seem to be friendly, reliable, etc, in the work you're doing now. So, if you have extra time or are choosing between tasks, it might not be a bad idea to do a few visibly helpful tasks rather than the invisible behind-the-scenes tasks.)
posted by salvia at 12:21 PM on January 10, 2008

Another grant writer here. The two things I tell people they need to be a good grant writer are: excellent writing skills (tell a compelling story, give a clear description in few words) and the ability to follow directions.

You're the best judge of internal organizational dynamics but it sounds good that they're giving you a chance with a small app. If it's a renewal or similar to ones done previously, ask to see those and any funder comments on them.
posted by gingerbeer at 1:27 PM on January 10, 2008

geez. We could form a club. (MetaGrants?)
posted by nax at 5:19 PM on January 10, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great suggestions. This has been very helpful.
posted by diode at 8:41 AM on January 11, 2008

Thanks for the shout-out, nax!

I wrote diode a long long tome, and will post the meat of it here in case someone else searches on grant writing. The links and stuff might be helpful.
Successful grant writing depends on:
1 - Knowing your grantors, and the world of grantmaking organizations in general
2 - Knowing your grantee - in this case, your organization - and its funding needs and possibilities
3 - An organized approach focused on deadlines and keeping to implementation and reporting timetables
4 - Ability to craft budgets
5 - Ability to organize boilerplate and other info and keep it current.

I'll say more about these in order. The first is most important.

1. Knowing your grantors. You say you guys mostly draw on government grants. Try to find out what grant programs you operate under. Get to know as much as you can about them; many have online applications and materials describing their programs. A lot of them even have successful applicants' info available online for you to compare.

Part of a grantwriter's job is to know the landscape. If you will always depend on the same federal grant programs, know them inside and out. Show familiarity with who they have funded and why. Understand what their various programs and program goals are - what mission are they trying to reach? How does your company's mission fit with the grant's mission? Getting a grant is about making a case for that match.

Also, what grant programs might you be eligible for that you aren't getting yet? Having a read on the world of grantmaking is essential. The more you know, the more powerful you are. Use resources designed especially for the field of connecting people to money. Watch the trends. Watch what people in think tanks like the Rand Instititute are talking about. Watch what donors and foundations are supporting and asking for. Good sources for this info:

The Chronicle of Philanthropy - someone here at MeFi recently called this the "Women's Wear Daily of philanthropy" which is so true. Everyone reads it; it's the basic newspaper of the field.

The Independent Sector is a coalition of people with money (foundations and donors) and people in nonprofits to try to support the nonprofit sector better. They maintain a good online library of information and documents.

The Foundation Center is a great starting point for learning about working with private foundations and about how to write great grants.

The Center for Nonprofit Management's Grant Seeker's Handbook is free and online.

USA.Gov - Guide to federal grants online.

Community Foundations are an increasingly important source of funding for groups that solve local and regional problems.

2. Knowing your organization. To be a great grant writer, you need to become the go-to person who knows it all about your organization. You need to be able to put your hands on all kinds of statistics - annual budget information, clients served, outcome and evaluation techniques and data, mission/vision/goals, types of programs, number of staff, number of staff with advanced degrees, number of staff who speak Chinese, yadda yadda yadda.

Everything is your business. One thing to work into your interview might be that if you get the job, one of your first tasks will be to interview program heads or department heads about their funding goals and priorities. You'll find out what they could do more of or do better with more support, and what they've always seen a need to do but never could due to lack of funding. You'll establish a two-way street where you'll listen to others' needs and frustrations, and in turn, you'll let them know what's being funded out there in the world so they can think about developing programs that will attract funding. For instance, right now, private foundations are very excited about "civic engagement." Everybody wants to fund stuff that makes people more active citizens. If program people know that, they can just as easily put together a Citizens Forum on Affordable Housing as they can a Historic Houses Tour (just as an example, I don't know what kind of work you do).

3. Organized approach. Grantwriting means drowning in a sea of paper. Even in a 'paperless society' of online applications, you will have loads of hard-copy files to maintain and in many cases will have to make and send multiple hard copies of stuff, collated. This is a pretty big job. Not only that, but you'll have all the aforementioned institutional information and grantmaker information to corrall and keep handy. And most importantly, you'll be on a schedule. All this requires organization and great time management.

Grantmaking is a game played on delay. You can write a grant right now, and not see any money from it for 18 months. This means multiple grants have to be constantly in the pipeline. You may start the job by sending 4 applications in one month. The next month maybe you'll send 3. The third month, 4 again. But also in that third month, an organization from the first month may contact you asking for a budget revision, right now. An organization from the second month may call you saying that one of your appendices didn't arrive and can you send another right now. The finance people may call you asking for the award number to match with a lost deposit. In the fourth month, maybe you'll get an award notice from someone in the first month (which would be amazingly fast for federal, but still, I'm exaggerating a bit). That means it's time for you to set up a file for grant implementation, work with the program staff to get their funds deposited, and set up a reporting schedule. Their first report will be due in 3 months. If you're late on reports, you jeopardize future grants. So you need to set up a reporting schedule for them. And you may be contacted by someone who gave you a grant last year and hasn't gotten the report yet, so you'll be digging through files trying to track down what that grant was all about and piecing the information together again.

So you see, quite quickly, you find yourself awash in deadlines - for application period openings, for supplemental info, for requesting funds, for reporting, and so on. In many cases you'll have to ride herd on the program staff to get back the data you'll need to report to the grantor organization. They won't want to think about pesky details like that, but grantors definitely want to know the outcome of the grant program. They'll usually want you to measure it in a specific way and provide supporting data. So there is some human management and whip-cracking involved in maintaining grants once you have them. Don't let people fall behind. And don't miss grant windows - they usually only open up once a year.

Here, in your interview, I would emphasize your IT background, which I would guess makes you detail-oriented, precise, and able to organize complex information. Talk about how you will set up timetable spreadsheets and automate the reminder process, how you will develop systems for tracking the movement of funds.

It may be that your organization has a really smoothly running, well-set-up means of managing these grants and that you won't have to do all these pieces of the management. That would be awesome, but is rare. Try to find out what the responsibilities are before going into the interview.

4. Budgeting. Most grants require a budget. It doesn't usually have to reflect exact reality - it hardly ever does - but the big chunks should be about right: staff time, purchases, travel expenses, contract work, speaker expenses, etc. All of these will involve typical ratios for your organization. You may be able to lean heavily on past budgets in crafting new ones if the programs are sort of similar (running this year's anti-tobacco campaign might not be that different from last year's).

The key thing is to look at overhead. If you can get grants that pay indirect costs - overhead - those are the best. Indirect costs are things like the time it takes you to apply for and manage the grant, the time it takes people to make copies or go shopping for materials - anything they have to do to make the grant happen that they wouldn't be doing if it weren't for the grant, even if it's NOT directly giving a program service. An example would be a grant that funds an hour of tutoring a week for sixth-grade kids after school. The tutors' hours would be paid, but what about the hours of the coordinator who interviews, selects, trains, and schedules the tutor? What about the time it takes to work with the school to keep the lights turned on and keep the janitor from vacuuming the room while the tutoring is happening? Include indirect costs in your proposals, if you are allowed to. This is where grants really pay off. Grants that don't pay indirect may end up costing your organization money, as the staff time has to be paid from somewhere, and if the grant isn't paying it, somebody else is. That impoverishes the organization and jeopardizes jobs.

As someone suggested in the thread, calling a dev. director or grant writer at a nearby npf and having a long lunch with them should help you get a grip on the budgeting part.

In your interview, emphasize it if you're good with numbers, number crunching, and setting up spreadsheets. Show that you understand some of the basics of grant funding, which you can learn about reading on some of the websites linked in this thread.

5. Ability to organize biolerplate (and other info) and keep it current. You are the information hound. Grants typically require a lot in the way of institutional descriptions. Grantmakers hardly ever come out to actually visit you, so they depend on your writing and your characterization to tell them how reliable, driven, successful, and well run your organization is. You can't possibly afford to spend time writing every grant from scratch - you'd be far behind.

So if you stay a grantwriter long, you'll develop some really useful boilerplate that you can reuse many times. For instance, you'll have institutional descriptions of varying lengths: 3 page, 1 page, half page, 1 paragraph, single line. You'll have a Fact Sheet with basic information about budget, donors, services, clients, funding sources, etc. You'll have Program Descriptions of varying lengths for your major programs. You'll keep copies of all the staff's resumes and make sure they get updated. You'll keep copies of annual budgets and program budgets every year. Your efficiency will depend on your ability to gather, organize, store, and update information. If you have a strength in this are, be sure to highlight it in your interview.

What about the writing part?
Notice I haven't mentioned writing much. Sadly, it's the least important part. If you ever sit on a panel to review grants, this becomes painfully obvious: dry, dead prose, redundancy, belabored descriptions. None of that actually makes or breaks a grant. What does make or break the grant is a strong case for funding and a clear sense that the organization has the capacity, talent, and experience to handle the grant money well and use it properly.

Now that's not to say you shouldn't write beautifully. You absolutely should. IF your grant is more readable, it stands a much better chance of winning closer attention. But beautifully written, poorly conceived grants are turned down every day, while boringly written but tightly conceived ones are approved.

Don't sacrifice the writing, because that's what makes it fun for you. Try to keep your writing fresh and simple. Don't use a lot of jargon and buzzwords. Do mention research in your field, citing it as you would using APA standards - it shows you aren't making up your case for funding. Do try to tell compelling stories. But you'll probably find that opportunities to be very creative are highly constrained by the application forms and the time you have to spend per application.

In your interview, mention that you can write QUICKLY and comfortably, that your copy is clean and requires little editing, that you're a quick study and good at translating dry detail into interesting reading, and that you have a fresh and attention-getting way with words. I'm sure those things are true for you, but even if they're not, that's what your organization will be hoping for.
posted by Miko at 1:03 PM on January 30, 2008 [11 favorites]

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